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By 62 to 55 votes with two abstentions, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a new basic law defining “Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people”. Thus, on July 19, 2018, more than seventy years after its foundation, the State of Israel’s status as national homeland of the Jewish people is finally legally anchored.

The Law

In eleven paragraphs, the law declares the “The Land of Israel,” in which the State of Israel was established, the “historical homeland of the Jewish people.” Further, the law defines the name of the state, its flag, its coat of arms, its national anthem, Jerusalem “complete and united” as its capital and Hebrew as the official language of the state. Explicitly, Arabic is accorded a special status in the state institutions and it is underlined that this law in no way affects the status of Arabic in the State of Israel prior to the entry into force of this law.

Then it is explained that the state is open to Jewish immigration from the worldwide diaspora of the Jewish people and has the task of protecting Jewish life in the diaspora. According to this new basic law, the State of Israel should “regard the development of Jewish settlement a national value” and promote it. The Hebrew calendar is to serve as official calendar “in addition to the Gregorian calendar”. Independence Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror are official public holidays. The Sabbath and Jewish holidays have the status of “public holidays in the state”, emphasizing that “non-Jews have the right to observe their days of rest on their Sabbaths and holidays”.


The State of Israel, like the Federal Republic of Germany, has no constitution that could serve as guideline for legislation or legal interpretations. A series of “Basic Laws” passed by an absolute majority of the Knesset over time adopt this function. Such a Basic Law cannot be changed by a simple majority but requires an absolute majority of at least 61 votes in the Israeli parliament for modification or even abolition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pleased that “122 years after Herzl articulated his vision, we now have established the basic principles of our existence in a Basic Law: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” Netanyahu emphasized that Israel respects the individual rights of all its citizens, which is unique in the Middle East.

Critical Voices

Critics, who incidentally come from the Jewish and Arab populations alike, complain that so far not a single fundamental law mentions the “equality” of all citizens of the state before the law. This is perceived as deeply problematic for a “democracy”. It is also problematic that the democratic character of Israel is not mentioned in this Basic Law at all.

The emphasis on Hebrew as language of the State of Israel is perceived as a downgrading of Arabic, although the so far unofficially official national languages Arabic and English have never been declared as official state languages in a comparable law in the past seventy years of the existence of the State of Israel.

The government’s mandate to “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement, critics say, might lead to discrimination based on race in the allocation of land and resources.

With regard to the relations of the State of Israel to the worldwide diaspora of the Jewish people, critics fear an increasing influence of Jewish orthodoxy on the diaspora, while it exerts a largely no-alternative religious rule within Israeli society. Especially in North America, Reform Judaism and conservative currents have a far greater influence so far than in the State of Israel.

Critics within official Israel, ranging from opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, to President Reuven Rivlin (who actually ought to abstain from any political remarks) to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit fear that this new basic law will negatively impact Israel’s position in the world and the reputation of the Jewish people. The son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and member of Knesset (Likud) Benny Begin abstained in the vote because of his fear that Israel is moving “from nationalism to chauvinism” with this law.

The Author

By Published On: July 20, 20183.4 min read
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